Not a Baby: Good deed or are you really infantilizing someone with a disability?
Written on August 28, 2015 by Kirsten Schultz
Relationships—even everyday social interactions—can be very difficult to navigate when chronic illness and/or disability are involved, particularly if infantilization is thrown into the mix.
Historically, those with disabilities have often been infantilized and viewed as almost childlike, lesser beings, incapable of caring for themselves or making their own decisions. The assumption that those of us with chronic illnesses or disabilities need someone to act in a parental role is dangerous. Infantilizing those of us with disabilities can remove our free will, strip us of our dignity, and plummet our self-esteem.
Infantilization has always been a big pet peeve of mine. In addition to having been diagnosed with Systemic Juvenile Arthritis at age five, I grew up in a household with abusive adults. I was placed in a parental role often as I was growing up and yet, even in college, if I wasn’t being overly praised for being an inspiration, I was being put down for being different. I ended up cutting contact with my mother last year as I refuse to be infantilized in any form as an adult. No one should be made to feel that way, which is why I work hard to avoid infantilizing anyone, especially those living with disabilities or chronic illnesses.
One great example of a way of infantilizing someone with a disability is the ever-popular offer to push your wheelchair. I have not had to utilize a wheelchair much in my life, but friends of mine who do discuss how it really becomes an extension of your body. I have personally seen people walk up and start handling another person’s wheelchair without asking permission to do so. It’s one thing to jump into action when it is needed or wanted, but it’s a much different thing to assume that, due to a disability, someone needs help.
A few years ago, my husband and I were on a road trip waiting for a ferry to cross a body of water. I decided to use the extra time to run to the bathroom. The woman in line in front of me had a wheelchair. This two-stall bathroom wasn’t quite the hole-in-the-ground permanent portapotty you see at many outdoor venues, but it wasn’t far off. There was no way that there was enough room in the supposed disabled stall for this woman’s wheelchair that could barely fit in the ‘bathroom’ itself.
I happened to be wearing an arthritis shirt that day, which served as a conversation starter between me and this woman. When the disabled stall became free, I asked if she needed help and got her situated before taking care of my own business. I helped her afterwards and got her back out to her husband.The woman was grateful that I had helped out as was her husband.
Afterwards I realized If I had infantilized her and proceeded to help without asking, especially around something that can be so awkward as dealing with bathrooming, she may have accepted my help but I don’t think she and I would’ve been able to connect or enjoyed each other’s company.
The key is that I asked. We really have to ask if someone needs help or wait for them to ask you for assistance. That’s how we can avoid infantilization. It’s a matter of dignity.
If you are interested in contributing ideas for topics, leave a comment below and I’ll add to the list!